Red, red wine
I’ve never been a big fan of the taste of beer or wine, so I’ve never drunk it in any quantity, just a glass now and then in sociable situations. But a couple of years ago when we were living in Nice I got into the habit of drinking quite a lot of red wine. By “quite a lot” I mean one or two glasses once or twice a week – seriously.
My other half J. and I both got sick with food poisoning several times while we were living in France. We eventually managed to trace the source back to (probably) an E. coli infection from (definitely) salad from the local greengrocer. Of all the things traditionally perceived as risky that we ate in France – from raw cured duck meat, to “blue” steak, to shellfish, to raw milk, raw fromage-blanc and raw yoghurt, and even, once a very, very undercooked chicken kebab (alas, I realised too late that what I was eating was raw in the middle), none of them ever made us ill. It was a little annoying to trace the source back to lettuce, considering I was always very careful to wash the salad greens well since they were freshly picked and still covered in muck when we bought them.
Then I mysteriously started to get “food poisoning” on several occasions even though J. didn’t get sick and we couldn’t figure out what I had eaten differently. By this time we had already traced the source of the other food poisonings to lettuce and had stopped eating it. These new poisoning incidents happened at a ridiculous frequency – every one or two weeks – so often that I thought I was either going to die of exhaustion or have to move back to the UK, because it wasn’t worth living in the sun anymore for this. This “food poisoning” was slightly different because it was accompanied by a dizzy, spinning head and started quite late at night – at about two or two thirty in the morning and went through till around four or four thirty. It took three or four incidents before I realised I was reacting to red wine. Most of the time I seemed to be able to tolerate one small glass of red wine, but any more than that (one and a half, for example), and I’d be talking to Ralph on the big white telephone.
Where did it come from? I’d never drunk much red wine, but I’d never reacted to red wine like this before. It was as though I’d suddenly become sensitised to it. I had no real explanation other than that red wine contains tannins, which can upset the digestion and might be the cause of “red wine headaches,” and that some red wines contain histamine. Histamine can cause stomach upset, but a more usual reaction is getting a rash. I’ve seen other people react this way; in fact I was at a wedding when one poor girl, drinking the same red wine as me, got a bright red rash from head to toe. Yet I was fine, I didn’t react to the wine that time, though I felt pretty rough the next day, and I’d reacted to varieties in the past that were supposed to be low in histamine, in fact if I drank enough of it, I reacted to all red wine. I was very puzzled.
So I started avoiding red wine and have avoided it for a couple of years now. Then I kept forgetting I had a problem with it and doing stupid things like getting drunk with friends. In one particularly “memorable” incident we had some friends stay over, we all got drunk on red wine, and I spent the night puking and pooping in a bathroom with no door (house renovations), while my friends slept a couple of metres away! They claim not to have heard anything, but I think that might be because they are kind.
After a few severe punishments from my body and a lot of missed sleep and embarrassment, I decided to drink white instead, which I hate as being a supertaster, I find it tastes like sick to me. But after one small glass of white wine, I spent the rest of the night feeling queasy.
Fire and Brimstone
It was only very recently that I heard about the new EU list of food allergens and intolerances that need to be labelled.
- Cereals containing gluten and products thereof
- Crustaceans and products thereof
- Eggs and products thereof
- Fish and products thereof
- Peanuts and products thereof
- Soybeans and products thereof
- Milk and dairy products (including lactose)
- Nuts and nut products
- Celery and products thereof
- Mustard and products thereof
- Sesame seeds and products thereof
- Sulphur dioxide and sulphites at concentrations of more than 10 mg/kg or 10 mg/litre
Then I started noticing that most wine labels in the supermarket now have some small bold type on them: contains sulphites. I had no idea that sulphites could cause reactions in people. Because wine isn’t labelled with an ingredients list, I had stupidly assumed it was a pure product. How wrong could I be? Wine is excluded from labelling under some protectionist EU law – probably because if people knew the kind of rubbish that goes into it, they wouldn’t drink it!
So what can sulphites do to people?
- They trigger migraines and sinusitis
- They trigger asthma attacks
- They cause urticaria, rashes and eczema
- They cause bloating, sickness and diarrhoea
- They cause the tongue and throat to swell so much they block the airways
- They cause autoimmune problems
- They cause anaphylactic shock
- And more
Well, some of those reactions make sickness and diarrhoea sound almost like a blessing. But some of the other symptoms made me both nervous and intrigued. For most of my life I’ve had problems with asthma, eczema, and migraines. Could I be sulphite sensitive? I was pretty sure that my eczema was caused by food, and I was determined to cure it. I used my initiative (google) to find out more.
Firstly, there’s a difference between food allergies and food intolerances. Allergies are caused by proteins or substances that bind to proteins and cause an actual antibody reaction from the immune system. Intolerances can be caused by virtually anything, but in practice are caused by just a few things. The mechanisms behind food intolerances haven’t been figured out yet, but they seem to be to do with an inability of the body to process and get rid of certain substances properly. Sulphites are a food intolerance.
I found this guy, Rick Williams, who gets migraines when he ingests sulphites. I really admire this guy, because he’s researched until he’s sure he’s found his problem, and he’s doing proper scientific experiments on himself to determine his level of sensitivity. Someone should take this guy and present him to a bunch of epidemiologists to show them how to do GOOD science. He’s discovered that certain vitamins and minerals help to raise his tolerance level of sulphites.
I tried another experiment. I found an organic red wine in the supermarket that had low enough levels of sulphites that it did not need to be labelled. Organic wine is not automatically sulphite free, but is only permitted to contain about a third as much as ordinary wine. With some trepidation, I drank a whole, large glass. And I had a peaceful night’s sleep. No reaction!
I immediately started taking the vitamins and minerals recommended by Rick Williams to reduce my sensitivity. These included molybdenum, B12, B6, and Folic acid. The problem is, you see, sulphites are everywhere. Even when you check the label, you never know what you are really getting. Sulphites get sprayed onto shellfish like prawns and scallops while they’re still at sea, in very variable quantities, and they’re never listed on the label. Sulphites get sprayed on to potatoes and apples to keep them from browning. Sulphites get sprayed on to lettuce in salad bars to keep the lettuce green. They’re also in dried fruit and nut mixes. Butchers use sulphites (illegally in many countries) to keep mince looking pink. With so many unlabelled uses, you never know what you are getting.
One Sloppy Experiment
I wondered, since I was reacting to sulphites so severely, if they might be the cause of my facial eczema. Since I don’t really eat many foods that contain additives, I wondered if I should also be avoiding sulphurous foods – like red meat and cruciferous vegetables. Sulphur is an important component of our diet, in fact too little causes symptoms that are indistinguishable from anaemia, but like everything, too much can be harmful. You require the trace mineral, molybdenum, to get rid of excess sulphur, and I had been quite worried about not getting enough trace minerals.
Sulphur and sulphites are different substances, but I thought in a half-assed, poorly-researched kind of way it might be worth a try. I casually changed my diet and stopped eating red meat and avoided green vegetables like broccoli. I had already cut out dairy because it seemed to have a very slight negative effect. I was still low-carbing, but I was kind of doing an anti-Atkins and eating a lot of white food. It was a pretty sloppy experiment, truthfully. I didn’t think the theory held much water and there are no tables anywhere on the net for the sulphur content of foods, but I thought, what the hell, I’m at the stage where I will give anything a go.
My eczema cleared up! I was really surprised, but it happened literally within five days of me changing my diet and starting the vitamins. It wasn’t a placebo effect either, because I was still clear a month later, having come through the stresses of Christmas unscathed. But something didn’t fit. I was really puzzled. I was still eating eggs. Eggs are sulphurous aren’t they? I’d been eating eggs all month. And how come my migraines, asthma, and eczema had gotten so much better when I started to do Atkins, even though I was eating tons of meat and salad? How come it had gotten better again for several months immediately when I started doing the very high-fat porker diet and practically living on dairy? I couldn’t figure it out. Was it just down to the vitamins, and my particular tolerance level of sulphur and sulphites?
I got a really bad cold after Christmas, the first one in over a year. I took lots of vitamin C. I remained eczema-free. On the last day of my cold we went to visit relatives and ate out at an Indian restaurant. When I woke up the next morning my face was a mess! I fiddled with my vitamins for weeks, I chopped and changed my diet. Nothing worked. I was sure I was doing exactly what I had done before Christmas, after all I was still avoiding red meat.
I guess I forgot about the green vegetables.
I forgot about the green vegetables! My problem wasn’t sulphurous foods at all. But I’d unwittingly stumbled on the answer to my eczema by doing an experiment. That’s the thing about doing experiments. You can form a theory and test it, and the theory seems to work, but if you don’t control your variables, or even if you do, your theory might well still be wrong. But I used my initiative, I took my health into my own hands and stopped relying on doctors who gave me prescriptions for hydrocortisone creams that didn’t work.
As I write this, I don’t have eczema anymore. It’s gone. G-O-N-E. I thought I had a beef allergy, but I don’t. I thought I had a dairy allergy, but I don’t. I even thought it might be because I’m low-carbing. Of course it’s not. I also thought I could eat carrots, but I’m not so sure I can. I thought vegetables were GOOD for you. Are they heck. Everything I thought I knew about my eczema, I’ve crossed out, thrown away, and started again. In fact, as a rather jolly side effect I appear to have cured my hypoglycaemia. Life is wonderful.
Do you really want to know the answer?
The problem was plant poisons and rotten stuff.
Notes from October 2007
This was a post I originally made on my other non-food blog when I had only just started this blog. It explains how I got to the point where I figured out I needed to go on the failsafe diet.